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A simple idea with a big impact

Westhampton Beach High School senior Allyson Downs has been giving back to her community since she was a child, organizing book drives in schools, building bookshelves for children and participating in beach cleanups, among other projects

Publication: The Southampton Press October 4, 2019

Now in her final year of high school, at 17 years old, she decided to do something different and give gifts to senior citizens at the Westhampton Care Center — simply to put smiles on their faces.

She walked the halls of the care center on Old Country Road on Monday afternoon with her friend Siobhan Pesce and her mother Bonnie Downs, and together they handed out 30 bags filled with stuffed animals, crossword puzzle books and pens.

“I just know that sometimes the seniors in this home get a little lonely, and I thought that it’d be nice to brighten up their day and just hand them a nice, happy gift,” Allyson said.

The project was part of Allyson’s organization, Builders and Books, that she and her older siblings, Zachary and Emilee, created several years ago to promote reading among children. Through the organization, they would host book drives and donate books and bookshelves to schools and families in need, giving them the tools to improve their reading skills.

She was able to purchase all the items for her latest project through a grant from the Southampton Youth Bureau, a town-run organization that, as one of its initiatives, offers funding for community service projects put together by local youth. The grant program provides up to $500 to winning applicants with a total of $2,500 available.

Allyson had been applying for the grant for the past five years, at first grouped with her older siblings, and was awarded funding every time. The grants enabled them to organize various projects under Builders and Books and allowed Allyson to continue the efforts even after Zachary and Emilee went to college.

“A big motivation I think is the community service and doing things for my community. I’ve always loved to kind of like make people happy and brighten their day somehow. So doing this kind of thing helps other people, which makes me feel good.

Last year, Allyson used the youth bureau grant to give tote bags full of gently-used books to second-graders at Tuckahoe School and to students at Westhampton Beach Elementary School. She painted each bag herself with reading-related images and hand delivered them to the Tuckahoe students.

“It’s like a hidden gem of a program,” Ms. Downs, the reading coordinator at Tuckahoe School, said of the Southampton Youth Bureau grant program.

People from the community have been donating used books to the Downs family for the last few years after learning about the children’s efforts to give them to children. Allyson said that her family’s garage and basement are constantly full of books, despite periodically clearing them out, because friends and family frequently drop off bags and boxes of books.

At the nursing home, Allyson introduced herself to a number of senior residents, some sitting in wheelchairs in community rooms and some lying in their beds, and asked if they wanted a gift bag while showing them what was inside. Many residents were thrilled to get such a surprise, with some saying that it made their day.

“I’m so glad I was in my room,” resident Arline Waterbury said to Allyson with a wide grin, after thanking her several times.

The care center’s recreational therapist, Samantha Vacey, said that people rarely come by with gifts for residents.

“I thought this experience was one of my favorite experiences, just because I actually got to see the happiness on their faces and see how much they enjoyed the gifts that they were getting,” Allyson said.

When she isn’t balancing her community service work with school, she is helping out at her Dad’s business in Westhampton Beach, KS Downs Plumbing and Heating, doing administrative work.

And now that she just started her senior year of high school, she is beginning to think about plans for college. She is hoping to attend a school in Rhode Island and pursue a degree in either environmental science or environmental studies.

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